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Stepping back from the brink
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Stepping back from the brink

After days of bitter recrimination and backlash between critics and defenders of the Israeli government for its controversial stands on the Kotel compromise and a proposed conversion bill, the adversaries seemed to take a deep breath late last week. 

The government in Jerusalem called for a six-month postponement on both the establishment of a permanent section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer and a potential bill that would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions. Both sides seemed to welcome the prospect of a “time out” though critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu are wary of whether he can ever be trusted to keep his word on a commitment to diaspora Jewry that conflicts with his political machinations. 

Netanyahu acknowledged that he reneged on his commitment to go forward with the Kotel proposal because otherwise he would have risked new elections, fearing his charedi partners would leave the coalition without a majority and the government would fall. 

The two issues that prompted an unprecedented outcry from much of the non-Orthodox diaspora world are quite different, and indicate the wide gaps in how Israeli and diaspora Jews understand each other. 

The Kotel controversy prompted the most public ire from American Jewish organizational leaders. (To be clear, egalitarian prayer continues at Robinson’s Arch, the southern section of the Western Wall, as it has for years. The proposed plan would have enhanced and made permanent the area and called for a central entrance to the Kotel plaza.)

But the unprecedented anger and expressions of betrayal aimed at the prime minister were because he clearly and publicly backtracked on an agreement. And his doing so seemed to underscore that the liberal denominations, which make up the great majority of American Jewry, are not fully part of the Jewish people in the eyes of the Israeli government. 

The conflict also highlighted the very different attitudes of American and Israeli Jews regarding the Kotel. Except for the Orthodox, Israelis see the Kotel as more of a national and historic site than one for prayer. And to most Israelis, the liberal denominations — Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist — are little known and little respected, an oddity of diaspora life yet to take significant hold in the Jewish state. 

By contrast, American Jews of all stripes tend to view the Kotel as a place of prayer as well as a historic site. 

The conversion bill has far more potential to negatively impact Jewish peoplehood. Those most affected by the legislation, calling for the fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate to have a monopoly on conversion, are the half-million Russian-speaking Israelis who speak Hebrew, live in Jewish families, and serve in the IDF. Many would convert to Judaism if they were welcomed by the rabbinate; instead, the rabbinate has raised the bar. 

What clout can a diaspora community have going forward? 

It’s true that we don’t vote in Israeli elections and have, at least until now, ultimately shown loyalty to Israeli governments, even when there are policy disagreements. But times are changing. There are signs that some major donors to Israel intend to express their deep frustration by withholding funds. Jewish members in Congress have voiced dissatisfaction with Israel’s actions, and that can have an impact on Israeli policy.

One would hope that Israel’s leadership will come to recognize that American Jewish support — political, financial, emotional, and spiritual — is vital, and no longer automatic. 

We must continue to make our voices heard, explaining to Israeli officials why these issues matter so deeply to us and to our vision of a united Jewish people, and listen respectfully to their views. If these conversations aren’t effective, pursuing the judicial route at the highest level in Jerusalem is recommended. But convincing is preferable to coercing. And compromise is required if we are ever to truly be Am Echad — one people.    n     

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